Story type: Literature
AN EPISODE IN THE HISTORY OF THE LOOE DIE-HARDS.
Maybe you have never heard of the East and West Looe Volunteer Artillery– the famous Looe Die-hards? “The iniquity of oblivion,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.”
“Time,” writes Dr. Isaac Watts–
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away!”
And this fine hymn was a favourite with Captain AEneas Pond, the commanding-officer of the Die-hards. Yet am I sure that while singing it Captain Pond in his heart excepted his own renowned corps. For were not the Die-hards an exception to every rule?
In the spring of the year 1803, when King George had to tell his faithful subjects that the Treaty of Amiens was no better than waste-paper, and Bonaparte began to assemble his troops and flat-bottomed boats in the camp and off the coast by Boulogne with intent to invade us, public excitement in the twin towns of East and West Looe rose to a very painful pitch. Of this excitement was begotten the East and West Looe Volunteer Artillery, which the Government kept in pay for six years and then reluctantly disbanded. The company on an average numbered sixty or seventy men, commanded by a Captain and two Lieutenants of their own choosing. They learned the exercise of the great guns and of small arms; they wore a uniform consisting of blue coat and pantaloons, with scarlet facings and yellow wings and tassels, and a white waistcoat; and the ladies of Looe embroidered two flags for them, with an inscription on each–‘Death or Victory‘ on the one–on the other, ‘We Choose the Latter.‘
They meant it, too. If the course of events between 1803 and 1809 denied them the chance of achieving victory, ’tis at least remarkable how they avoided the alternative. Indeed it was their tenacity in keeping death at arm’s length which won for them their famous sobriquet.
The Doctor invented it. (He was surgeon to the corps as well as to its senior Lieutenant.) The Doctor made the great discovery, and imparted it to Captain Pond on a memorable evening in the late summer of 1808 as the two strolled homeward from parade–the Captain moodily, as became a soldier who for five years had carried a sword engraved with the motto, ‘My Life’s Blood for the Two Looes,‘ and as yet had been granted no opportunity to flesh it.
“But look here, Pond,” said the Doctor. “Has it ever occurred to you to reflect that in all these five years since you first enlisted your company, not a single man of it has died?”
“Why the devil should he?” asked Captain Pond.
“Why? Why, by every law of probability!” answered the Doctor. “Take any collection of seventy men the sum of whose ages divided by seventy gives an average age of thirty-four–which is the mean age of our corps, for I’ve worked it out: then by the most favourable rates of mortality three at least should die every year.”
“War is a fearful thing!” commented Captain Pond.
“But, dammit, I’m putting the argument on a civilian basis! I say that even in time of peace, if you take any seventy men the sum of whose ages divided by seventy gives thirty-four, you ought in five years to average a loss of fifteen men.”
“Then,” murmured Captain Pond, “all I can say is that peace is a fearful thing too.”
“Yes, yes, Pond! But my point is that in all these five years we have not yet lost a single man.”
“Good Lord!” exclaimed Captain Pond, after a moment’s thought. “How do you account for it?”
Professionally the Doctor was the most modest of men. “I do not seek to account for it,” said he. “I only know that you, my old friend, well deserve the distinction which you have characteristically overlooked–that of commanding the most remarkable company in the Duchy; nay, I will venture to say, in the whole of England.”
They had reached the brow of the hill overlooking the town. Captain Pond halted and gazed for a moment on the veil of smoke above the peaceful chimneys, then into the sunset fading far down the Channel. A sudden moisture clouded his gaze, but in the moisture quivered a new-born light of pride.
Yes, it was true. He–he in five years’ command–had never lost a man!
The discovery elated and yet humbled him. His was a simple soul, and took its responsibilities seriously. He sought not to inquire for what high purpose Providence had so signally intervened to stave off from the East and West Looe Artillery the doom of common men. He only prayed to be equal to it. The Doctor’s statistics had, in fact, scared him a little. I am positive that he never boasted.
And yet–I will say this for the credit of us Cornishmen, that we rejoice one in another’s good fortune. Captain Pond might walk humbly and ‘touch wood’ to avert Nemesis: he could not prevent the whisper spreading, nor, as it spread, could he silence the congratulations of his fellow-townsmen. ‘One and All’ is our motto, and Looe quickly made Captain Pond’s singular distinction its own–
There’s Horse, there’s Foot, there’s Artiller-y,
Yet none comes up with Looe;
For the rest of the Army never says die,
But our chaps never do!
You may realise something of the public enthusiasm when I tell you that it gave an entirely new trend to the small-talk on the Town Quay. Hitherto, the male population which resorted there had admitted but four subjects as worthy of sensible men’s discussion–the weather, the shipping intelligence, religion, and politics: but in a few days the health of the ‘Die-hards’ took precedence of all these, and even threatened to monopolise public gossip. Captain Pond, as the first reward of notoriety, found himself severely criticised for having at the outset enlisted a dozen gunners of ripe age, although he had chosen them for no worse reason than that they had served in his Majesty’s Navy and were by consequence the best marksmen in the two towns. Not even this excuse, however, could be pleaded on behalf of Gunner Israel Spettigew (commonly known as Uncle Issy), a septuagenarian who owed his inclusion entirely to the jokes he cracked. They had been greatly relished on parade: as indeed they had made him for forty years past the one indispensable man at Mayor-choosings, Church-feasts, Carol-practices, Guise-dancings, and all public occasions; and because they varied little with the years, no one had taken the trouble to remark until now that Uncle Issy himself was ageing. But now the poor old fellow found himself the object of a solicitude which (as he grumbled) made the Town Quay as melancholy as a house in a warren.
The change in the public attitude came on him with a sudden shock. “Good-mornin’, Uncle,” said Sergeant Pengelly of the Sloop Inn, as the veteran joined the usual group on the Quay for the usual ‘crack’ after breakfast. “There was a touch o’ frost in the air this mornin’. I hope it didn’t affect you.”
“What?” said Uncle Issy.
“We’re in for a hard winter this season,” went on Sergeant Pengelly lugubriously. “A touch o’ frost so early in October you may take as one o’ Natur’s warnings.”
“Ay,” chimed in Gunner Tripconey, shaking his head. “What is man, when all’s said an’ done? One moment he’s gallivantin’ about in beauty and majesty, an’ the next–phut! as you might say.”
Uncle Issy stared at him with neighbourly interest. “Been eatin’ anything to disagree with you, Tripconey?” he asked.
“I have not,” Mr. Tripconey answered; “and what’s more, though born so recent as the very year his Majesty came to the throne, I’ve ordained to be extry careful over my diet this winter an’ go slow over such delicacies as fried ‘taties for breakfast. If these things happen in the green tree, Mr. Spettigew, what shall be done in the dry?”
Mr. Spettigew cheerfully ignored the hint. “Talkin’ of frost and ‘taties,” he said, “have you ever tried storin’ them in hard weather under your bed-tie? ‘Tis a bit nubbly till the sleeper gets used to it, but it benefits the man if he’s anyway given to lumbago, an’ for the ‘taties themselves ’tis salvation. I tried it through the hard winter of the year ‘five by the advice o’ Parson Buller, and a better Christian never missed the point of a joke. ‘Well, Israel,’ says he that January, ‘how be the potatoes getting along?’ ‘Your honour,’ says I, ‘like the Apostles themselves, thirteen to the dozen; and likewise of whom it was said that many are cold but few are frozen’–hee-hee!”
Nobody smiled. “If you go strainin’ yourself over little witticisms like that,” observed young Gunner Oke gloomily, “one of these days you’ll be heving the Dead March played over you before you know what’s happenin’: and then, perhaps, you’ll laugh on t’other side of your mouth.”
Uncle Issy gazed around upon the company. They were eyeing him, one and all, in deadly earnest, and he crept away. Until that moment he had carried his years without feeling the burden. He went home, raked together the embers of the fire over which he had cooked his breakfast, drew his chair close to the hearth, and sat down to warm himself. Yes: Sergeant Pengelly had spoken the truth. There was an unnatural touch of frost in the air this morning.
By and by, when William Henry Phippin’s son, Archelaus, bugler to the corps (aged fifteen), took the whooping-cough, public opinion blamed Captain Pond no less severely for having enlisted a recruit who was still an undergraduate in such infantile disorders: and although the poor child took it in the mildest form, his father (not hitherto remarkable for parental tenderness) ostentatiously practised the favourite local cure and conveyed him to and fro for three days and all day long in the ferry-boat which plied under Captain Pond’s windows. The demonstration, which was conducted in mufti, could not be construed as mutiny; but the spirit which prompted it, and the public feeling it evoked, galled the worthy Captain more than he cared to confess.
Still, and when all was said and done, the sweets of notoriety outflavoured the sours. The Troy Artillery, down the coast, had betrayed its envy in a spiteful epigram; and this neighbourly acid, infused upon the pride of Looe, had crystallised it, so to speak, into the name now openly and defiantly given to the corps. They were the Die-hards henceforth, jealous of the title and of all that it implied. The ladies of Looe, with whom Captain Pond (an unmarried man) had ever been a favourite, used during the next few weeks far severer language towards their neighbours of Troy than they had ever found for the distant but imminent Gaul and his lascivious advances.
All this was well enough; but Looe had a Thersites in its camp.
His name was Scantlebury; he kept a small general shop in the rear of the Town Quay, and he bore Captain Pond a grudge of five years’ standing for having declined to enlist him on the pretext of his legs being so malformed that the children of the town drove their hoops between them.
In his nasty spite this Scantlebury sat down and indited a letter, addressed–
“To the Right Honble Person as looks after the artillery.
“Honble SIR,–This comes hoping to find you well as it leaves me at present and I beg leave to tell you there be some dam funny goings-on, down here to Looe. The E. & W. Looe Volunteer Artllry have took to calling themselves the Die-hards and the way they coddle is a public scandal, when I tell you that for six weeks there has been no drill in the fresh air and 16s 8d public money has been paid to T. Tripconey carpenter (a member of the corps) for fastening up the windows of the Town Hall against draughts. Likewise a number of sandbags have been taken from the upper battery and moved down to the said room (which they use for a drill hall) to stop out the wind from coming under the door. Likewise also to my knowledge for three months the company have not been allowed to move at the double because Gunner Spettigew (who owns to seventy-three) cant manage a step of thirty-six inches without his heart being effected.
“I wish you could see the place where they have been and moved the said upper Battery. It would make you laugh. They have put it round the corner to the eastward where it would have to blow away seven or eight hundred ton of Squire Trelawny’s cliff before it could get a clear shot at a vessel entering the haven. Trusting you will excuse the length of this letter and come down and have a look for yourself, I remain yours truly. A Well-Wisher.”
The clerk in Whitehall who opened this unconventional letter passed it up to his chief, who in turn passed it on to the Adjutant-General, who thrust it into a pigeon-hole reserved for such curiosities. Now, as it happened, a week later the Adjutant-General received a visit from a certain Colonel Taubmann of the Royal Artillery, who was just leaving London for Plymouth, to make a tour of inspection through the West, and report on the state of the coast-defences; and during the interview, as the Adjutant-General glanced down the Colonel’s list of batteries, his eye fell on the name ‘Looe’; whereby being reminded of the letter, he pulled it out and read it for his visitor’s amusement.
You may say then that Colonel Taubmann had fair warning. Yet it was far from preparing him for the welcome he received, three weeks later, when he drove down to Plymouth to hold his inspection, due notice of which had been received by Captain Pond ten days before.
“What the devil’s the meaning of this?” demanded Colonel Taubmann as his post-boy reined up on the knap of the hill above the town. By ‘this’ he meant a triumphal arch, packed with evergreens, and adorned with the motto ‘Death to the Invader‘ in white letters on a scarlet ground.
He repeated the question to Captain Pond, who appeared a minute later in full regimentals advancing up the hill with his Die-hards behind him and a large and excited crowd in the rear.
“Good-morning, sir!” Captain Pond halted beneath the archway and saluted, beaming with pride and satisfaction and hospitable goodwill. “I am addressing Colonel Taubmann, I believe? Permit me to bid you welcome to Looe, Colonel, and to congratulate you upon this perfect weather. Nature, as one might say, has endued her gayest garb. You have enjoyed a pleasant drive, I hope?”
“What the devil is the meaning of this, sir?” repeated the Colonel.
Captain Pond looked up at the motto and smiled. “The reference is to Bonaparte. Dear me, I trust–I sincerely trust–you did not even for a moment mistake the application? You must pardon us, Colonel. We are awkward perhaps in our country way–awkward no doubt; but hearty, I assure you.”
The Colonel, though choleric, was a good-natured man, and too much of a gentleman to let his temper loose, though sorely tried, when at the bottom of the hill the Die-hards halted his carriage that he might receive not only an address from the Doctor as Mayor, but a large bouquet from the hands of the Doctor’s four-year-old daughter, little Miss Sophronia, whom her mother led forward amid the plaudits of the crowd. (The Doctor, I should explain, was a married man of but five years’ standing, and his wife and he doted on one another and on little Miss Sophronia, their only child.) This item of the programme, carefully rehearsed beforehand, and executed pat on the moment with the prettiest air of impromptu, took Colonel Taubmann so fairly aback that he found himself stammering thanks before he well knew what had happened: and from that moment he was at the town’s mercy. Before he could drop back in the chaise, and almost before the Mayor, casting off his robe and throwing it upon the arm of the town-crier, had exchanged his civic for his military role, the horses were unharnessed and a dozen able-bodied men tugging at the traces: and so, desperately gripping a stout bunch of scarlet geraniums, Colonel Taubmann was rattled off amid a whirl of cheering through the narrow streets, over the cobbles, beneath arches and strings of flags and flag-bedecked windows, from which the women leaned and showered rice upon him, with a band playing ahead and a rabble shouting astern, up the hill to the battery, where willing hands had wreathed Looe’s four eighteen-pounders with trusses of laurel. The very mark moored off for a target had been decorated with an enormous bunch of holly and a motto–decipherable, as Captain Pond, offering his field-glass, pointed out–
Our compliments to Bonyparty:
He’ll find us well and likewise hearty!
The moment for resistance, for effective protest, had passed. There was really nothing for the Colonel to do but accept the situation with the best face he could muster. As the chaise drew up alongside the battery, he did indeed cast one wild look around and behind him, but only to catch a bewitching smile from the Mayoress–a young and extremely good-looking woman, with that soft brilliance of complexion which sometimes marks the early days of motherhood. And Captain Pond, with the Doctor and Second Lieutenant Clogg at his elbow, was standing hat in hand by the carriage-step; and the weather was perfect, and every face in the crowd and along the line of the Die-hards so unaffectedly happy, that–to be brief–the Colonel lost his head for the moment and walked through the inspection as in a dream, accepting–or at least seeming to accept–it in the genial holiday spirit in which it was so honestly presented. Bang-Bang! went the eighteen-pounders, and through the smoke Colonel Taubmann saw the pretty Mayoress put up both hands to her ears.
“Damme!” said Gunner Spettigew that evening, “the practice, if a man can speak professionally, was a disgrace. Oke, there, at Number Two gun, must ha’ lost his head altogether; for I marked the shot strike the water, and ’twas a good hundred yards short if an inch. ‘Hullo!’ says I, and glances toward the chap to apologise. If you’ll believe me, I’d fairly opened my mouth to tell ‘en that nine times out of ten you weren’t such a blamed fool as you looked, when a glance at his eye told me he hadn’ noticed. The man looked so pleased with everythin’, I felt like nudgin’ him under the ribs with a rammer: but I dessay ’twas as well I thought better of it. The regular forces be terrible on their dignity at times.”
Colonel Taubmann had, however, made a note of the Die-hards’ marksmanship, and attempted to tackle Captain Pond on the subject later in the afternoon–albeit gently–over a cup of tea provided by the Mayoress.
“There is a spirit about your men, Captain–” he began.
“You take sugar?” interposed Captain Pond.
“Thank you: three lumps.”
“You find it agrees with you? Now in the Duchy, sir, you’ll find it the rarest exception for anyone to take sugar.”
“As I was saying, there is certainly a spirit about your men–“
“Health and spirits, sir! In my experience the two go together. Health and spirits–the first requisites for success in the military calling, and both alike indispensable! If a soldier enjoy bad health, how can he march? If his liver be out of order, if his hand tremble, if he see black spots before his eyes, with what accuracy will he shoot? Rheumatism, stone, gout in the system–“
Colonel Taubmann stared. Could he believe his eyes, or had he not, less than an hour ago, seen the Looe Artillery plumping shot into the barren sea a good fifty yards short of their target? Could he trust his ears, or was it in a dream he had listened, just now, to Captain Pond’s reasons for marching his men home at a pace reserved, in other regiments, for funerals?–“In my judgment, sir, a step of twenty-four to thirty inches is as much as any man over sixty years of age can indulge in without risk of overstrain, and even so I should prescribe forty-eight steps a minute as the maximum. Some criticism has been levelled at me–not perhaps without excuse–for having enlisted men of that age. It is easy to be wise after the event, but at the time other considerations weighed with me–as for instance that the men were sober and steady-going, and that I knew their ways, which is a great help in commanding a company.”
Colonel Taubmann stared and gasped, but held his tongue. There was indeed a breadth of simplicity about Captain Pond–a seriousness, innocent and absolute, which positively forbade retort.
“Nay!” went on the worthy man. “Carry the argument out to its logical conclusion. If a soldier’s efficiency be reduced by ill-health, what shall we say of him when he is dead? A dead soldier–unless it be by the memory of his example–avails nothing. The active list knows him no more. He is gone, were he Alexander the Great and the late Marquis of Granby rolled into one. No energy of his repels the invader; no flash of his eye reassures the trembling virgin or the perhaps equally apprehensive matron. He lies in his place, and the mailed heel of Bellona–to borrow an expression of our Vicar’s–passes over him without a protest. I need not labour this point. The mere mention of it bears out my theory, and justifies the line I have taken in practice; that in these critical times, when Great Britain calls upon her sons to consolidate their ranks in the face of the Invader, it is of the first importance to keep as many as possible of them alive and in health.”
“Captain Pond has mounted his hobby, I see,” said the pretty Mayoress, coming forward at the conclusion of this harangue. “But you should hear my husband, sir, on the health-giving properties of Looe’s climate.”
Colonel Taubmann bowed gallantly. “Madam, I have no need. Your own cheeks bear a more eloquent testimony to it, I warrant, than any he could compose.”
“Well, and so they do, my love,” said the Doctor that evening, when she repeated this pretty speech to him. “But I don’t understand why you should add that anyone could tell he belonged to the regular service.”
“They have a way with them,” said the lady musingly, gazing out of window.
“Why, my dear, have I not paid you before now a score of compliments as neat?”
“Now don’t be huffed, darling!–of course you have. But, you see, it came as pat with him as if he had known me all my life: and I’ll engage that he has another as pat for the next woman he meets.”
“I don’t doubt it,” agreed her spouse: “and if that’s what you admire, perhaps you would like me to compliment and even kiss every pretty girl in the place. There’s no saying what I can’t do if I try.”
“Please don’t be a goose, dear! I never said a Volunteer wasn’t more comfortable to live with. Those professionals are here to-day and gone tomorrow–sometimes even sooner.”
“Not to mention,” added the Doctor, more than half-seriously, “that life with them is dreadfully insecure.”
“Oh! I would never seriously advise a friend of mine to marry a regular soldier. Hector dear, to be left a widow must be terrible! . . . But you did deserve to be teased, for never saying a word about my tea-party. How do you think it went off? And haven’t you a syllable of praise for the way I had polished the best urn? Why, you might have seen your face in it!”
“So I might, my love, no doubt: but my eyes were occupied in following you.”
Yes, the day had been a wonderful success, as Captain Pond remarked after waving good-bye to his visitor and watching his chaise out of sight upon the Plymouth road. The Colonel’s manner had been so affable, his appreciation of Looe and its scenery and objects of interest so whole-hearted, he had played his part in the day’s entertainment with so unmistakable a zest!
“We are lucky,” said Captain Pond. “Suppose, now, he had turned out to be some cross-grained martinet . . . the type is not unknown in the regular forces.”
“He was intelligent, too,” chimed in the Doctor,–“unlike some soldiers I have met whose horizon has been bounded by the walls of their barrack-square. Did you observe the interest he took in my account of our Giant’s Hedge? He fully agreed with me that it must be pre-Roman, and allowed there was much to be said for the theory which ascribes it to the Druids.”
Alas for these premature congratulations! They were to be rudely shattered within forty-eight hours, and by a letter addressed to Captain Pond in Colonel Taubmann’s handwriting:–
“Dear Sir,–The warmth of my reception on Tuesday and the hospitality of the good people of Looe–a hospitality which, pray be assured, I shall number amongst my most pleasant recollections–constrain me to write these few friendly words covering the official letter you will receive by this or the next post. In the hurry of leave-taking I had no time to discuss with you certain shortcomings which I was compelled to note in the gunnery of the E. and W. Looe Volunteer Artillery, or to suggest a means of remedy. But, to be brief, I think a fortnight’s or three weeks’ continuous practice away from all local distractions, and in a battery better situated than your own for the requirements of effective coast-defence, will give your company that experience for which mere enthusiasm, however admirable in itself, can never be an entirely satisfactory substitute.
“On the 2nd of next month the company (No. 17) of the R.A. at present stationed at Pendennis Castle, Falmouth, will be sailing for Gibraltar on active service. Their successors, the 22nd Company, now at Chatham, will not be due to replace them until the New Year. And I have advised that your company be ordered down to the Castle to fill up the interval with a few weeks of active training.
“May I say that I was deeply impressed by the concern you show in the health of your men? I agreed with well-nigh everything you said to me on this subject, and am confident you will in turn agree with me that nothing conduces more to the physical well-being of a body of troops, large or small, than an occasional change of air.
“With kind regards and a request that you will remember me to the ladies who contributed so much to the amenities of my visit.– Believe me, dear sir, your obedient servant,
“H. R. Taubmann (Lieut.-Colonel R.A.).”
I will dare to say that Colonel Taubmann never fired a shot in his life– round-shot, bomb or grenade, grape or canister–with a tithe of the effect wrought by this letter. For a whole day Looe was stunned, dismayed, desolated.
“And in Christmas week, of all holy seasons!” commented Gunner Spettigew. “And the very first Christmas the Die-hards have started a goose club!”
“And this,” said Sergeant Pengelly, with bitter intonation, “is Peace on Earth and Good-will toward men, or what passes for such in the regulars. Wi’ the carol-practisin’ begun too, an’ nobody left behind to take the bass!”
“Tis the Army all over!” announced William Henry Phippin, who had served as bo’sun’s mate under Lord Howe. “I always was in two minds about belongin’ to that branch o’ the Service: for, put it how you will, ’tis a come-down for a fellow that has once known the satisfaction to march ahead of ’em. There was a sayin’ we had aboard the old Queen Charlotte— ‘A messmate afore a shipmate,’ we said, ‘an’ a shipmate afore a dog, an’ a dog, though he be a yellow dog, afore a sojer.’ But what vexes me is the triumphant arches we wasted on such a chap.”
“My love,” said the Doctor to his spouse, “I congratulate you on your fancy for professional soldiers. You are married to one, anyway.”
“It comes to that, or very nearly.” He groaned. “To be separated for three weeks from my Araminta! And at this time of all others!”–for the lady was again expecting to become a mother: as in due course (I am happy to say) she did, and presented him with a bouncing boy and was in turn presented with a silver cradle. But this, though the great event of the Doctor’s mayoralty, will not excuse a longer digression.
Captain Pond kept his head, although upon his first perusal of the letter he had come near to fainting, and for a week after walked the streets with a tragic face. There was no appeal. Official instructions had followed the Colonel’s informal warning. The die was cast. The Die-hards must march, must for three weeks be immured in Pendennis Castle, that infernal fortress.
To his lasting credit he pretermitted no effort to prepare his men and steel them against the ordeal, no single care for their creature-comforts. Short though the notice was, he interviewed the Mayoress and easily persuaded her to organise a working-party of ladies, who knitted socks, comforters, woollen gloves, etc., for the departing heroes, and on the eve of the march-out aired these articles singly and separately that they might harbour no moisture from the feminine tears which had too often bedewed the knitting. He raised a house-to-house levy of borrowed feather-beds. Geese for the men’s Christmas dinner might be purchased at Falmouth, and joints of beef, and even turkeys (or so he was credibly informed). But on the fatal morning he rode out of Looe with six pounds of sausages and three large Christmas puddings swinging in bags at his saddle-bow.
What had sustained him was indignation, mingled with professional pride. He had been outraged, hurt in the very seat of local patriotism: but he would show these regulars what a Volunteer company could do. Yes, and (Heaven helping him) he would bring his men home unscathed, in health, with not a unit missing or sick or sorry. Out of this valley of humiliation every man should return–ay, and with laurels!
Forbear, my Muse, to linger over the scene of that departure! Captain Pond (I say) rode with six pounds of sausages and three puddings dangling at his saddle-bow. The Doctor rode in an ambulance-waggon crammed to the tilt with materials ranging from a stomach-pump to a backgammon-board; appliances not a few to restore the sick to health, appliances in far larger numbers to preserve health in the already healthy. Mr. Clogg, the second lieutenant, walked with a terrier and carried a bag of rats by way of provision against the dull winter evenings. Gunner Oke had strapped an accordion on top of his knapsack. Gunner Polwarne staggered under a barrel of marinated pilchards. Gunner Spettigew travelled light with a pack of cards, for fortune-telling and Pope Joan. He carried a Dream-Book and Wesley’s Hymns in either hip-pocket (and very useful they both proved). Uncle Issy had lived long enough to know that intellectual comforts are more lasting than material ones, and cheaper, and that in the end folks are glad enough to give material comforts in payment for them.
It was in the dusk of the December evening–the day, to be precise, was Saturday, and the hour 5 p.m.–that our Die-hards, footsore and dispirited, arrived in Falmouth, and tramped through the long streets to Pendennis. The weather (providentially) was mild; but much rain had fallen, and the roads were heavy. Uncle Issy had ridden the last ten miles in the ambulance, and the print of a single-Glo’ster cheese adhered thereafter to the seat of his regimentals until the day when he handed them in and the East and West Looe Volunteer Artillery passed out of this transitory life to endure in memory.
They found the Castle in charge of a cross-grained, superannuated sergeant and his wife; of whom the one was partially deaf and the other totally. Also the regulars had marched out but three days before, and the apartments–the dormitories especially–were not in a condition to propitiate the squeamish. Also No. 17 Company of the Royal Artillery had included a notable proportion of absent-minded gunners who, in the words of a latter-day bard, had left a lot of little things behind them. Lieutenant Clogg, on being introduced to his quarters, openly and with excuse bewailed the trouble he had taken in carrying a bag of rats many weary miles. A second terrier would have been a wiser and less superfluous investment. As for the commissariat, nothing had been provided. The superannuated sergeant alleged that he had received no orders, and added cheerlessly that the shops in Falmouth had closed an hour ago. He wound up by saying incisively that he, for his part, had no experience of Volunteers nor of what they expected: and (to pass over this harrowing part of the business as lightly as may be) the Die-hards breakfasted next morning on hastily-cooked Christmas puddings.
The garrison clock had struck eleven before, dog-tired as they were, they had reduced the two dormitories to conditions of cleanliness in which it was possible for self-respecting men to lie down and take their sleep. And so they laid themselves down and slept, in their dreams remembering Looe and their families and rooms that, albeit small, were cosy, and beds that smelt of lavender. Captain Pond had apportioned to each man three fingers of rum, and in cases of suspected catarrh had infused a dose of quinine.
It was midnight before he lay down in his quarters, on bedding he had previously aired before a sullen fire. He closed his eyes–but only to sleep by fits and starts. How could his men endure three weeks of this? He must keep them occupied, amused. . . . He thought of amateur theatricals. . . . Good God! how unsatisfying a supper was biscuit, after a long day’s ride! Was this how the regular army habitually lived? . . . What a pig’s-sty of a barracks! . . . Well, it would rest upon Government, if he buried his men in this inhospitable hole. He raised himself on his pillow and stared at the fire. Strange, to think that only a few hours ago he had slept in Looe, and let the hours strike unheeded on his own parish clock! Strange! And his men must be feeling it no less, and he was responsible for them, for three weeks of this— and for their good behaviour!
Early next morning (Sunday) he was astir, and having shaved and dressed himself by lantern light, stepped down to the gate and roused up the superannuated sergeant with a demand to be conducted round the fortifications.
The sergeant–who answered to the incredible name of Topase–wanted to know what was the sense of worriting about the fortifications at this hour of the day: and, if his language verged on insubordination, his wife’s was frankly mutinous. Captain Pond heard her from her bed exhorting her husband to close the window and not let in the draught upon her for the sake of any little Volunteer whipper-snapper in creation. “What next?” she should like to know, and “Tell the pestering man there’s a bed of spring bulbs planted close under the wall, an’ if he goes stampin’ upon my li’l crocuges I’ll have the law of him.”
Captain Pond’s authority, however, was not to be disobeyed, and a quarter of an hour later he found himself, with Sergeant Topase beside him, on the platform of the eighteen-pounder battery, watching the first rosy streaks of dawn as they spread and travelled across the misty sea at his feet. The hour was chilly, but it held the promise of a fine day; and in another twenty minutes, when the golden sunlight touched the walls of the old fortress and ran up the flagstaff above it in a needle of flame, he gazed around him on his temporary home, on the magnificent harbour, on the town of Falmouth climbing tier upon tier above the waterside, on the scintillating swell of the Channel without, and felt his chest expand with legitimate pride.
By this time the Doctor and Lieutenant Clogg had joined him, and their faces too wore a hopefuller, more contented look. Life at Pendennis might not prove so irksome after all, with plenty of professional occupation to relieve it. Captain Pond slipped an arm within the Doctor’s, and together the three officers made a slow tour of the outer walls, plying Sergeant Topase with questions and disregarding his sulky hints that he, for his part, would be thankful to get a bite of breakfast.
“But what have we here?” asked Captain Pond suddenly, coming to a halt.
Their circuit had brought them round to the landward side of the fortress, to a point bearing south by east of the town, when through a breach–yes, a clean breach!–in the wall they gazed out across the fosse and along a high turfy ridge that roughly followed the curve of the cliffs and of the seabeach below. Within the wall, and backed by it,–save where the gap had been broken,–stood a group of roofless and half-dismantled outbuildings which our three officers studied in sheer amazement.
“What on earth is the meaning of this?”
“Married quarters,” answered Sergeant Topase curtly. “You won’t want ’em.”
“Leastways, that’s what they was until three days ago. The workmen be pullin’ ’em down to put up new ones.”
“And in pulling them down they have actually pulled down twelve feet of the wall protecting the fortress?”
“Certainly: a bit of old wall and as rotten as touch. Never you fret: the Frenchies won’t be comin’ along whilst you’re here!”–thus Sergeant Topase in tones of fine sarcasm.
“By whose orders has this breach been made?” Captain Pond demanded sternly.
“Nobody’s. I believe, if you ask me, ’twas just a little notion of the contractor’s, for convenience of getting in his material and carting away the rubbish. He’ll fix up the wall again as soon as the job’s over, and the place will be stronger than ever.”
“Monstrous!” exclaimed Captain Pond. “Monstrous! And you tell us he has done this without orders and no one has interfered!”
“I don’t see what there is to fret about, savin’ your presence,” the old sergeant persisted. “And, any way, ‘twon’t take the man three days at the outside to cart off the old buildings. Allow another four for getting in the new material–“
“Seven days! seven days! And Great Britain engaged at this moment in the greatest war of its history! Oh, Doctor, Doctor–these professionals!”
Sergeant Topase shrugged his shoulders, and, concluding that his duties as a cicerone were at an end, edged away to the gatehouse for his breakfast.
“Oh, these professionals!” ingeminated Captain Pond again, eyeing the breach and the dismantled married quarters. “A whole seven days! And for that period we are to rest exposed not only to direct attack, but to the gaze of the curious public–nay, perchance even (who knows?) to the paid spies of the Corsican! Doctor, we must post a guard here at once! Incredible that even this precaution should have been neglected! Nay,”– with a sudden happy inspiration he clapped the Doctor on the shoulder,– “did he say ‘twould take three days to level this sorry heap?”
“It shall not take us an hour! By George, sir, before daylight to-morrow we’ll run up a nine-pounder, and have this rubbish down in five minutes! Yes, yes–and I’d do it to-day, if it weren’t the Sabbath.”
“I don’t see that the Sabbath ought to count against what we may fairly call the dictates of national urgency,” said the Doctor. “Salus patriae suprema lex.”
“Latin. It means that when the State is endangered all lesser considerations should properly go to the wall. To me your proposal seems a brilliant one; just the happy inspiration that would never occur to the hidebound professional mind in a month of Sundays. And in your place I wouldn’t allow the Sabbath or anything else–“
A yell interrupted him–a yell, followed by the sound of a scuffle and, after a moment’s interval, by a shout of triumph. These noises came from the roofless married quarters, and the voice of triumph was Lieutenant Clogg’s, who had stepped inside the building while his seniors stood conversing, and now emerged dragging a little man by the collar, while with his disengaged hand he flourished a paper excitedly.
“A spy! A spy!” he panted.
“I caught him in the act!” Mr. Clogg thrust the paper into his Captain’s hands and, turning upon his captive, shook him first as one shakes a fractious child, and then planted him vigorously on his feet and demanded what he had to say for himself.
The captive could achieve no more than a stutter. He was an extremely little man, dressed in the Sunday garb of a civilian–fustian breeches, moleskin waistcoat, and a frock of blue broadcloth, very shiny at the seams. His hat had fallen off in the struggle, and his eyes, timorous as a hare’s, seemed to plead for mercy while he stammered for speech.
“Good Lord!” cried Captain Pond, gazing at the paper. “Look, Doctor–a plan!”
“A sketch plan!”
“A plan of our defences!”
“Damme, a plan of the whole Castle, and drawn to scale! Search him, Clogg; search the villain!”
“Wha-wha-what,” stuttered the little man, “WHAT’S the m-m-meaning of this? S-some-body shall p-pay, as sure as I–I–I–“
“Pay, sir?” thundered Captain Pond as Mr. Clogg dragged forth yet another bundle of plans from the poor creature’s pocket. “You have seen the last penny you’ll ever draw in your vile trade.”
“Wha-what have I–I–I DONE?”
“Heaven knows, sir–Heaven, which has interposed at this hour to thwart this treacherous design–alone can draw the full indictment against your past. Clogg, march him off to the guard-room: and you, Doctor, tell Pengelly to post a guard outside the door. In an hour’s time I may feel myself sufficiently composed to examine him, and we will hold a full inquiry to-morrow. Good Lord!”–Captain Pond removed his hat and wiped his brow. “Good Lord! what an escape!”
“I’ll–I’ll have the l-l-law on you for t-th-this!” stammered the prisoner sulkily an hour later when Captain Pond entered his cell.
No other answer would he give to the Captain’s closest interrogatory. Only he demanded that a constable should be fetched. He was told that in England a constable had no power of interference with military justice.
“Y-you are a s-s-silly fool!” answered the prisoner, and turned away to his bench.
Captain Fond, emerging from the cell, gave orders to supply him with a loaf of bread and a pitcher of water. Down in Falmouth the bells were ringing for church. In the Castle a Sabbath stillness reigned. Sergeant Topase, napping and reading his Bible by turns before the gatehouse fire, remarked to his wife that on the whole these silly amachoors were giving less trouble than he had expected.
At 7.45 next morning Gunner Israel Spettigew, having relieved guard with Gunner Oke at the breach, and advised him to exhibit a dose of black-currant wine before turning in (as a specific against a chill in the extremities), was proceeding leisurably to cut himself a quid of tobacco when he became aware of two workmen–carpenters they appeared to be in the dim light–approaching the entry.
“Who goes there?” he challenged. “‘Tis no use my asking you for the countersign, because I’ve forgotten it myself: but there’s No Admittance except on Business.”
“That’s what we’ve come upon,” said one of the workmen. “By the looks of ‘ee you must be one of the new Artillerymen from Looe that can’t die however hard they want to. But didn’ Jackson tell you to look out for us?”
“Why, our Clerk of the Works. He’s somewhere inside surely? He usually turns up half an hour ahead of anyone else, his heart’s so set on this job.”
“I haven’t seen ‘en go by, to my knowledge,” said Uncle Issy.
The two men looked at one another. “Not turned up? Then there must be something the matter with ‘en this morning: taken poorly with over-work, I reckon. Oh, you can’t miss Jackson when once you’ve set eyes on him–a little chap with a face like a rabbit and a ‘pediment in his speech.”
“Hey?” said Uncle Issy sharply. “What? A stammerin’ little slip of a chap in a moleskin waistcoat?”
“That’s the man. Leastways I never see’d him wear a moleskin waistcoat, ‘xcept on Sundays.”
“But it was Sunday!”
“Oh, tell me–tell me, that’s dear souls! Makes a whistly noise in his speech–do he?–like a slit bellows?”
“That’s Jackson, to a hair. But–but–then you hev seen ‘en?”
“Seen ‘en?” cried Uncle Issy. “A nice miss I ha’n’t helped to bury ‘en, by this time! Oh yes . . . if you want Jackson he’s inside: an’ what’s more, he’s a long way inside. But you can’t want him half so much as he’ll be wantin’ you.”